Book Review: Planning Families in Nepal

Planning Families in Nepal. Jan Brunson, New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 2016, 150 pp.

In Planning Families in Nepal, Jan Brunson offers her readers an insightful and beautifully written account of how family planning decisions are made and preferences are formed among Hindu Nepali women. Drawing from over a decade of fieldwork among urban and peri-urban women and men, this ethnography adds significantly to the literature on demographic trends in south Asian societies and to our understanding of fertility decisions and non-decisions. Brunson’s book gives readers a glimpse into the minutiae of women’s reproductive lives in this study of today’s caste Hindus of Kathmandu, based on a large set of survey data, interviews with professionals from across the development and family planning sectors, and 30 in-depth case studies.

Each generation of demographic anthropologists enhances our understanding of how fertility trends take shape and how individual decisions lead to patterns of behavior, which in turn determine the vital rates surveyed and analyzed by demographers. In an increasingly pro-female intellectual environment, the last two decades of demographic theorizing have moved us from flattened, simplistic versions of women and their decisions, to where rationality, empowerment, choice, freedom, and agency are the currencies used to measure and compare populations of fertility decision-makers. But the black box of culture remains—that elusive set of norms and expectations that influence behavior below the surface and beyond the reach of most demographers’ accounts, and many anthropologists’ as well. Despite our increasingly nuanced understanding, the challenge in demography is still to understand pressures so subtle, so intimate, and so personal that even one’s research subjects themselves might never have need to discuss them. As Brunson elegantly said, summarizing the familial expectations of one female informant: “There was no need to express aloud, that which was already understood” (p. 87).

But in her careful, thorough fieldwork, conducted 2000–2015 (the bulk falling between 2003–2005), Brunson overcomes these challenges and offers us a thoughtful and compassionate glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of her Hindu-caste informants, most of whom resided on the rim of the Kathmandu Valley. In her survey of high- and low-caste/social class informants, Brunson finds a variety of views that will greatly enhance the understanding of any student of south Asia, Hindu-caste societies, anthropology, and demography. In this society, teetering on the edge of what appears to feel to her informants like a slippery slope into an uncertain modernity, people are juggling the competing pressures of government family planning campaigns that advocate for two-child families, a still-strong cultural and familial preference for sons, the glorification of education and associated aspirations, and the heavy weight of expectations of modesty and strictly defined decorum among women of certain social classes.

One of the chief strengths of Brunson’s work is the way she highlights and explains the realities of the patrilocal joint family system. As she explains, the structure of this system undermines the logic of women who say that having daughters is just as good as having sons. Indeed, in today’s Nepal, it is considered normal to state that daughters are just as valuable as sons. However, the less commonly stated and rarely contested reality is that sons are needed to care for and eventually attend to the funeral rites of their parents. This is well understood and is an often-cited reason for son preference in Hindu societies. Brunson adds to this, through the words and experiences of her Nepali informants. She explains that because the joint family system relocates brides into the homes of their husbands and affines, it creates households in which families and indeed wives themselves need sons to bring in the next generation of daughters-in-law. Brunson thusly reveals the opposing pressures that Nepali women living in a patrilocal joint family system experience: While they may embrace modern values emphasizing the equal value of daughters and decrying the notion that only sons are valuable, the reality of their lives is that only sons will bring the daughters-in-law into the family who will eventually relieve some of their own work load. Though Brunson is not the first scholar to recognize this reality, her attentive account of the words, metaphors, and proverbs her informants use to shed light on this conundrum is a wonderful addition to existing scholarship.

Her work also addresses broader questions of social change at this moment in Nepali history, which, to many of her informants, feels like they are peering over an edge into a world governed by social norms that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Brunson terms this sensation “social vertigo.” In the case of fertility decisions, or non-decisions (delaying a final decision by using temporary family planning methods), Brunson describes the social vertigo experienced by women coming to grips with the increasingly common observation that sons are less and less reliable caretakers of their elderly parents. How can they reconcile this against the still-prevalent ideal of the joint family and the heartaches of raising daughters in such a system? Brunson explores this through the eyes of her female informants, from those just beginning their reproductive years, to those looking back on them.

The instability felt and seen in all quarters of life in Nepal since the Maoist insurrection has normalized a narrative of uncertainty and disappointment. This sets a tone that colors community members’ interpretation of all behavior in their community. Brunson shows how this tone has contributed to social vertigo in Brunson’s female research subjects and the way they perceive the behavior and reliability of their sons and the other young men around them. In a wonderful chapter in which she focuses on the feelings, perceptions, and statements of young men from this community, Brunson finds that sons’ agentive commitment to family, as she puts it, runs counter to concerns and worries expressed by the women in her study. I would have enjoyed even more consideration of the apparent disconnect between what women seem to increasingly believe they can expect from having sons, and how the young men themselves express their commitment and sense of duty to family. Each of these perceptions will influence the confidence with which both men and women in this setting make fertility decisions or engage in fertility delays.

This is an outstanding ethnography of caste-Hindu people living in Kathmandu today, written from the perspective of demographic anthropologist. It will not disappoint scholars and students of this region and subject, and would make an excellent addition to a reading list for upper-level undergraduate or graduate-level teaching.

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